After researching most of the NFL player pool at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end each week over the past few seasons, I will go on a new path for the daily games in 2021. I continue to make the projections for Sports Illustrated, and this baseline will be used to identify possible values at each position during the season.
Even though my projections come out as rankings, the two sets of data are worlds apart. The goal is to look at an offense and determine their key players expected playing time and opportunity. Therefore, I need to be fair with my evaluations, free from my biases toward each player. In the end, my spreadsheet spits out stats for each player that will be sorted by fantasy points.
Many times, the difference between 10 to 20 players can be three fantasy points (depending on the format). In the end, touchdowns are big events in fantasy football and create swings in fantasy scoring. Player A, ranked 20th at wide receiver, is projected to score 16.50 fantasy points in PPR leagues with a 50 percent chance of scoring based on his career path and matchup. Player B sits 40th (13.50 fantasy points), but he brings a possession-type skill set, leading to a 25 percent scoring chance. In essence, they have the same opportunity, but they have a wide range on my ranking list.
When doing rankings, we know the best players who have the best opportunity, so they naturally clutter the top end of the list each week while most being must starts. Although many players have a high floor, they still have a variance from week to week. The trick is finding a balance between flash players and stars.
My goal each week in season-long leagues is to play my star players. The fewer decisions I have when setting my lineups, the better my chance of success.
In the daily games, we see each week players with low salaries post difference-maker scores. The key to winning is mixing a core of studs with some undervalued options that post impact scores for their price point.
At DraftKings, the target is to find players that will score four times their salary to have a shot at GPP (grand prize pool). If you are playing in smaller leagues, the winning scores will be much lower. To succeed at FanDuel GPPs, we are looking for players who will score three times their salary.
Kansas City Chiefs: Mahomes-Hill/Kelce-Hardman
Carolina Panthers: Darnold-McCaffrey-Moore
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (DK – $8,100/FD – $8,800)
In the 2021 draft season for the season-long games, Mahomes was consistently the first quarterback off the board. He has two stud receiving options (Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill), but he needs another wideout to step up to separate him from the top end of the quarterback field. He fits the 4X and 3X profiles at DraftKings (4.23) and FanDuel (3.56) that we are looking for in the daily games. I have him projected for 321 combined yards with 4.25 touchdowns.
In 2020, Mahomes struggled in his matchup in the playoffs against the Browns (269 combined yards with two scores). He scored over 30.00 fantasy points in four-point passing touchdown leagues six times in 19 games. Mahomes has the top quarterback ranking this week, but the Browns will try to slow down the clock with their run defense. If Cleveland can finish drives with touchdowns, the Chiefs should attempt well over 40 passes. His high salary may lead to Mahomes being a lower percentage own than expected. I see enough value at other positions to stack Kansas City's top receiving options and still roster a competitive team.
Option: Kyler Murray – 29.93 fantasy points projected
Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers (DK – $5,000/FD – $6,500)
In his first game with the Panthers, Darnold draws his former team. There will be motivation on both sides of the ball to prove a point in the matchup. Carolina has the best running back with elite pass-catching ability, plus depth and talent at wide receiver. The Jets already lost a couple of players off their defense, giving Darnold a better window to pass the ball. I have him projected for 287 combined yards with three touchdowns, making his best value at quarterback in Week 1.
Options: Trey Lance – 19.69 (waiting on info Week 1 role) and Mac Jones – 19.25
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers (DK – $9,500/FD – $10,400)
In Week 1, fantasy owners should find values at different positions, allowing the salary cap relief to get McCaffrey in the starting lineup. He has an extremely high floor due to his opportunity in the passing game, and the Panthers tend to have him on the field for a high number of plays. Ideally, he needs to score 38.00 fantasy points at DraftKings and 31.20 FanDuel to be worth his investment. In most weeks, there won't be a lot of players who score over 30.00 fantasy points. The trick is finding the build behind him. I have him projected for 144 combined yards with seven catches and two scores.
Option: Austin Ekeler – 22.29 fantasy points.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football (DK – $6,400/FD – $7,000)
The coach-speak out of Washington is to use Gibson in a similar role as Christian McCaffrey in 2021. A fantasy owner can often dismiss this type of talk, but their coaching staff came from Carolina. Gibson projects to be a volume runner on early downs with the skill set to push much higher in the passing games. Washington has a top defense, and they want to run the ball. He should come away with a touchdown at minimum with a chance to rush for over 100 yards (projected for 112 combined yards with four catches and 1.2 TDs).
James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars (DK – $6,400/FD – $5,900)
The injury to Travis Etienne cleared the path for Robinson to be active in the Jaguars' offense. He finished his rookie season as the seventh-highest scoring running back in PPR leagues, but he didn't deliver an impact game in either matchup against the Texans (70 combined yards and five catches and 25/99/1). In 2020, Houston had the worst defense against running backs (30.68 FPPG), which doesn't look any better this season. Jacksonville improved the quarterback position while also having depth and upside at wide receiver. Robinson should receive well over 20 touches with an excellent chance of scoring. His role also helps his floor in the passing game.
Option: Raheem Mostert – 19.39 fantasy points
Terry McLaurin, Washington Football (DK – $6,400/FD – $6,900)
The gunslinging Ryan Fitzpatrick drives the bus in Washington. He’s never passed for over 4,000 yards in his 16 years in the NFL. Fitzpatrick made DeVante Parker relevant in 2019 (72/1,202/9), and the Bucs’ top two receivers (Mike Evans – 45/792/6 and Chris Godwin – 29/418/3 over eight games). McLaurin already has a high starting point (87/1,118/4) while having the talent to beat a defense deep on any play. I have him projected for seven catches for 103 yards and a 75 percent chance of scoring. He has the highest projections on cost per 1,000 dollars spent (3.94) for a receiver over $5,000 at DraftKings.
Options: Tyreek Hill – 29.46 fantasy points, Davante Adams – 26.89 fantasy points, DK Metcalf – 25.48 fantasy points
Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts (DK – $4,100/FD – $5,300)
If Carson Wentz starts, Pittman draws the top value play at wide receiver in Week 1. His salary is favorable, and he gets a bump in targets with T.Y. Hilton placed on the injured list. Pittman brings size and scoring ability, and Seattle should put up a fight on the scoreboard. I have him projected for six catches for 67 yards and a touchdown with a 4.55 rating for his salary ($4,100) at DraftKings (2.08 at FanDuel – ranks 3rd at wide receiver).
Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills (DK – $3,400/FD – $4,900)
His low salary ($3,400) at DraftKings will draw plenty of attention from sharp fantasy owners in Week 1, even with a tough matchup against Pittsburgh. Davis has a WR4 feel based on the Bills depth chart, but Buffalo had him on the field for WR2 snaps in 2020. His big-play profile gives him a swing-for-the-fences feel in the daily games while only needing 13.20 fantasy points to pay off. His training camp reports were positive over the summer, and I expect him to be active against the Steelers.
Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals (DK – $4,700/FD – $6,000)
In the season-long drafts, Higgins ranked 21st by wide receiver ADP, but DraftKings listed him as their 41st option in Week 1 by salary ($4,700). There is some cloudiness on the Bengals’ offense, with Joe Burrow coming over a significant injury and Cinci having three viable top-tier options at wideout. His ceiling is extremely high. Burrow should look his way often in Week 1. I have him projected for six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown.
Options: Jaylen Waddle – 15.15 fantasy points, Mecole Hardman – 19.30 fantasy points
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (DK – $8,300/FD – $8,500)
Kelce remains an edge at tight end, but he comes with a price. He has a sure thing feel in most weeks while dominating most of his competition over the long haul of the season. In addition, Darren Waller isn’t on the main slate in Sunday, giving fantasy owners another reason to gravitate toward Kelce. Last year in the postseason vs. the Browns, he caught eight passes for 109 yards and a score while delivering an electric run over his final 11 games (96/1,275/9). Kelce projects to catch seven passes for 87 yards and a touchdown in Week 1
Option: George Kittle – 14.41 fantasy points
Robert Tonyan, Green Bay Packers (DK – $4,200/FD – $5,400)
Despite receiving only 3.7 targets per game in 2020, Tonyan finished as the fourth-highest scoring tight end (176.60 fantasy points) in PPR leagues. His success came from 11 touchdowns and a high catch rate (88.1). Tonyan gained more momentum over the summer, pointing to an increased opportunity in 2021. The Packers don’t have a WR2 that stands out, which may lead to him improving his tight end ranking as the number two option in their passing game in Green Bay. The Saints play well vs. the run with a solid defensive line. Rodgers should get the ball out quickly, while New Orleans has been game-planning how to slow down Davante Adams all summer. I have Tonyan catching four passes for 37 yards with a 75 percent chance of scoring.
Option: Mike Gesicki – 13.04 fantasy points
My Week 1 Rankings & Projections will be updated multiple times next week after each team releases their injury reports. In season, the first set of projections comes out on Wednesday, and the second update after practices close on Friday.
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Senior analyst Shawn Childs is a multi-sport, high-stakes fantasy legend with lifetime earnings in the high six-figures. He has been providing in-depth, analytical break downs for years all while helping his subscribers to countless titles and winnings across season-long & DFS. An inaugural inductee of the NFBC Hall of Fame, Shawn can teach you how to prep like a champ!